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On Feb. 1 last year, the economic partnership agreement (EPA) between Japan and the European Union entered into force. Now, imported European food products like wine, pork and cheese have much lower, if not zero, tariffs.

This has had an almost immediate impact — last April, after the end of the fiscal year, imports of pork and cheese from the EU went up 47 and 57 percent, respectively. Cheese imports from members of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP or TPP-11) have also increased.

Since 2014, cheese consumption in Japan has been increasing steadily, reaching an all-time high of 352,930 tons in 2018. Still, at around 2.8 kilograms per capita, the consumption rate of cheese in Japan is only a fraction of the amount eaten by Danes, Icelanders and Luxembourgers, Europe’s top cheese consumers.

The history of cheese in Japan, however, is surprisingly long. Around the year 650, so (a food made by solidifying and preserving layers of milk skin) was presented to Emperor Kotoku. Several centuries later, Emperor Daigo ordered several dairy farming regions to produce it for the court, although the custom ceased during the feudal Kamakura Period (1185-1333), when the government became controlled by samurai. The eighth Tokugawa shogun, Yoshimune (1684-1751), is said to have liked cheese and dairy products enough to possess cows, but eating cheese wasn’t a widespread custom.

Although domestic cheese production started properly in the 1870s with the development of dairy farming in Hokkaido, until the beginning of the Showa Era (1926-89) the consumption of cheese in Japan was minuscule due to its cost and unfamiliarity. Cheese consumption only took off in the late 1970s, when the popularity of pizza made with natural cheese, which melted when heated, became widespread. Until then, processed cheese simply meant to be eaten sliced, similar to kamaboko fish cakes, was the standard.

Nowadays cheese, especially if it’s of the melty variety, is quite trendy. Cheesy foods like cheese dak-galbi from South Korea and Swiss raclette have been embraced for their photogenic, social media-friendly qualities, while cheese-filled hamburger steaks are mainstays for family restaurant chains.

Along with other fermented foods, cheese is even regarded as a health food. Highly publicized studies have shown how moderate amounts of blue cheese, which has anti-inflammatory properties, may prevent cardiovascular disease, while around 30 grams a day of Camembert cheese has been shown to have beneficial impacts on levels of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) protein, which may help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. The results of these studies have increased sales of these cheeses among those middle-aged and older.

Menu staple: Cheese-filled hamburger steaks can be found at many family restaurants in Japan. | MAKIKO ITOH
Menu staple: Cheese-filled hamburger steaks can be found at many family restaurants in Japan. | MAKIKO ITOH

This recipe is my take on a nabe (hot pot) that became rather popular in Japan last year. Its distinguishing feature is the use of an entire wheel of Camembert cheese, which becomes a kind of gooey sauce as it melts. It has three gut-friendly, fermented foods in it — kimchi, miso and cheese — and is also packed with complex umami flavors.

Time: Prep 20 mins., initial cook 20 mins.

Ingredients (serves 4):

For the chicken meatballs:

• 350 grams ground chicken thigh meat

• 3 tablespoons minced leek or green onion

• 1 teaspoon grated ginger

• 1 small egg

• ½ teaspoon salt

• Black pepper

• 1 tablespoon sake

For the soup base:

• 2 400-gram cans cut tomatoes

• 100 grams kimchi, cut up roughly

• 1 to 2 tablespoons kimchi liquid

• 200 milliliters water

• 1 teaspoon dashi stock granules

• ½ tablespoon sugar

• 2 thin leeks, cut into 4-centimeter pieces

• 2 tablespoons white miso

• Soy sauce to taste

• Tomato juice or water

• 250 grams Camembert cheese

• Preferred amount Chinese cabbage and leeks, roughly cut

• Cooked plain rice, udon noodles or toasted baguette slices

• Tabasco sauce (optional)

Preparation

Make the meatball mix. Combine all the ingredients and mix well until slightly sticky. Refrigerate until needed.

Combine all the soup ingredients except the miso and soy sauce in an earthenware or cast iron hot pot and bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Dissolve the miso in a ladle of the sauce and add it to the pot. Taste and add soy sauce if needed (but not too much, since the cheese and meatballs will add more salt).

Cut the cheese into eight sections, leaving it barely attached at the bottom.

Put the pot on a burner at the tableand leave it at a simmer. Scoop up the meatball mixture with a spoon and drop into the soup, adding some of the vegetables. Simmer until the meatballs are done, then top with cheese.

Each person scoops out broth and add-ins as they wish, adding hot sauce to taste. Add more vegetables as the pot gets depleted. Serve with baguette slices or, as the broth gets low, add cooked rice, udon or other pasta to finish the meal.

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